Battle over Confederate base names unresolved even after Congress supports changes in veto-proof votes

Abbie Bennett
July 23, 2020 - 3:10 pm
Fort Bragg

Renaming military bases honoring Confederate leaders could become the defining conflict of the $740.5 billion annual defense programs and policy bill, even after lawmakers in the House and Senate passed draft versions with veto-proof majorities.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate this week voted to approve massive annual legislation packages that include provisions forcing the Pentagon to rename military bases that honor the Confederacy, including Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Fort Benning, Georgia and Fort Hood, Texas -- mostly Army bases. 

Capitol Hill lawmakers moved ahead with the measures as part of their versions of the National Defense Authorization Act despite repeated veto threats from President Donald Trump, including a formal notice this week. After individual service branches announced their own bans on Confederate flags and symbology, the Pentagon this week issued an order effectively banning the display of the Confederate flag on all installations. 

But the fate of those military base names is still uncertain, and the key defense bill faces a long road ahead in Congress as the two chambers next head to conference committee to reconcile their different versions and forge ahead with a compromise bill to send to the president for his signature. Renaming the bases could become a key point of contention for lawmakers as they negotiate over a joint bill that includes service member pay increases, sets troop levels, authorizes military equipment purchases, approves defense health funding and some measures to benefit veterans. 

The House voted 232-184 to advance its version of the defense spending bill on Tuesday and the Senate voted 86-14 to advance its draft Thursday -- both are veto-proof majorities. Both versions would force the Defense Department to establish a commission to review Confederate base names (though the scope includes names of buildings, streets, equipment, aircraft and other property) and recommend changes. The Senate draft allows three years for the process, while the House version called for name changes within one year. 

While both bills advanced with veto-proof majorities, votes later this year on the final version of the bill may not, making the Trump administration's threat a credible one. 

The White House issued a warning ahead of the House vote on Tuesday, threatening a veto and accusing name change advocates of disrespecting troops who served at the bases. 

“President Trump has been clear in his opposition to politically motivated attempts like this to rewrite history and to displace the enduring legacy of the American Revolution with a new left-wing cultural revolution,” the White House statement read, though Republicans and Democrats would both vote to pass the draft bills in the House and Senate. The White House called it "part of a sustained effort to erase from the history of the Nation those who do not meet an ever-shifting standard of conduct."

“The Confederacy was not something that should be held up for honor by the United States or our nation’s military,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, on the House floor Monday. “There is no shortage of honorable replacement candidates to receive the honor of having a military base, installation or facility named in their honor.”

As the chambers work to negotiate a compromise bill to present to the president, the language in the bill could change, but Armed Services staff said some version of renaming bases will likely remain in the final version. 

Some lawmakers said they believe that even with a veto threat overhanging negotiations, a measure to rename the bases will not only survive to the final bill, but the Senate will also secure a veto-proof majority once again. Both Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. -- whose state is home to three of the 10 bases named for Confederate leaders -- said they believe Congress will successfully force the issue. 

In a recent Fox News interview, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he hoped the president "would reconsider vetoing the entire defense bill -- which includes pay raises for our troops -- over a provision that could lead to changing the names of some military bases." 

Lawmakers are set to conference and bring the joint defense bill to a vote this fall, setting up the potential for a showdown between Congress, a presidential veto and a veto override vote ahead of the November election, though it could fall after the election or move into early 2021. 

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Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.

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